Monday, November 21, 2005

Maestri Debate: Case Closed

On November 13, Alessandro Beltrami, Rolando Garibotti and Ermanno Salvaterra completed a new route on the northern flanks of Cerro Torre in Patagonia and, in the process, put to rest a nearly 50-year-old saga of deceit.

In 1959, a team led by Italy's Cesare Maestri claimed the first ascent of Cerro Torre via a line that started on the East Face and finished on the North Face and North Ridge; only Maestri and Toni Egger were said to have summited, and Egger died during the descent. The ascent soon was questioned, and in 1970 Maestri returned to Cerro Torre to bolt his way up the Southeast Ridge and install the infamous Compressor Route, now the standard line up the tower.

Apparently, plenty of people still believe Maestri climbed the peak in 1959. Check out this photo of a Maestri T-shirt I purchased in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, about five years ago. It says, in part, "Twice on the top of the most difficult mountain in the world."

Garibotti and Salvaterra are two of Patagonia's most experienced and successful climbers; Salvaterra, for example, had already done two new routes on Cerro Torre and made the peak's first winter ascent. Both felt deep personal interest in the truth behind the great tower's first ascent. This year, they made two major assaults on the northern route; they climbed nearly 1,000 meters on the first attempt, and then reached the summit after two days, in alpine style, on their second try. During these climbs they followed Maestri's claimed line for hundreds of meters and crossed it many other times. Their verdict? There was not a single sign of Maestri's presence above a gear cache left in 1959 very low on the East Face, at the base of a prominent snowfield about 300 meters above the glacier. Above this, there was not a single 1959-era piton, rope, sling, rappel anchor or bolt, despite the fact that Maestri said he placed dozens of bolts on the upper face and ridge. The debate is over, folks, if one even remained. Maestri did not climb Cerro Torre in 1959.

Interestingly, as Garibotti points out in a comprehensive analysis of Cerro Torre's first ascent in the 2004 American Alpine Journal, Maestri didn't climb Cerro Torre in 1970 either. (You can read Garibotti's story here.) Although he is often credited with the first ascent via the Compressor Route, Maestri stopped climbing atop the headwall he bolted into submission, about 35 meters below the top; he did not even step out of his aiders onto the icy summit ledges, let alone climb the snow mushroom that caps the peak. Therefore, Garibotti concludes, the first ascent of Cerro Torre was in 1974, when Italians Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari and Pino Negri succeeded via the West Face. "History," Garibotti writes in the AAJ, "has yet to give this ascent its rightful place." Now, perhaps, historians will finally get it right.

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